"Night of shame stuns England," read the headline in London's Daily Telegraph. It was November 18, 2004. The previous evening, at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium, England's national soccer team had lost a friendly to Spain, 1-0. But the "shame" had precious little to do with what transpired on the pitch. It stemmed chiefly from Spanish fans' showering of racial abuse on several of England's black players.
Ashley Cole felt "a blast of bigotry from one corner of the Bernabeu" when he received a yellow card for a dicey tackle, reported Telegraph correspondent Henry Winter. "The racism intensified from then on, disgracefully so, deafeningly so." Specifically, Spanish fans serenaded the black Englishmen with monkey chants. Nor was it simply a tiny rabble of Spanish hooligans doing the grunting. As the BBC's Katya Adler noted, citing a center-left Spanish press account, "the racist chanting came as much from groups of well-heeled young Spanish men in the crowd as from the well-known football thugs labeled the 'Ultras.'"
The painful irony, Winter observed, was that prior to the game "both sides had lined up behind a banner declaring 'all united against racism in football'" while the spectators heard recorded pleas for tolerance from two world-famous black footballers, Frenchmen Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram. The England-Spain match took place just six weeks after Spain coach Luis Aragones was caught on videotape referring to Henry as "that black shit," in an apparent attempt to motivate his star forward, Jose Antonio Reyes, who plays alongside Henry for the English club Arsenal. And it came just one day after racist jeering by Spanish fans marred an Under-21 soccer match between the two countries.
FIFA, the sport's world governing body, slapped the Spanish Football Federation with a steep fine for the fans' behavior. But these were hardly isolated incidents. The "monkey chant" is now an odious staple of many European soccer games, especially in Spain. "Anybody who's not deaf and regularly attends football matches in southern Europe knows how [the monkey chant] sounds," wrote Ian Hawkey in London's Sunday Times last March. "In Spain, you can catch the grunting noise somewhere every weekend. It rang out long and notoriously loud during England's international in Madrid in November. It echoed through the lower south tier at the same stadium, the celebrated Santiago Bernabeu, when Real Madrid played Bayer Leverkusen the same month."
Hawkey ticked off a few other examples. Last February, Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos, who plays his club ball for Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, endured monkey chants at Spain's Deportivo La Coruna--"where the referee asked the public address man to tell people to desist." Racist taunts also dogged forward Samuel Eto'o--of Cameroon and Spain's FC Barcelona--at Real Zaragoza. After tallying a goal, Eto'o decided to mock the bigoted hecklers: He mimicked a chimpanzee, tucking his hands under his armpits and cupping his lips in an "O" shape while mouthing grunts of his own. Costa Rican forward Paulo Wanchope went a step further. When a few fans of his own club team, Spain's Malaga FC, began hurling racist blather at Wanchope following a league match against Real Betis, he raced into the stands to confront them--and wound up getting in a scuffle, before his teammates intervened.
In late 2004, on the heels of the England-Spain fiasco, BBC Sport investigated the pervasiveness of racism in Spanish soccer. The results weren't encouraging. Carlos Ferreyra Nunez, one of Spain's leading anti-racism campaigners, told the BBC that overtly racist soccer fans could be found "every week and all over the country." Such bigotry was "a cancer," he said, "that has touched every aspect of football." Excising the cancer has proved difficult. Earlier this month, Real Zaragoza was once again fined by the Spanish Football Federation after some of its supporters unleashed racist taunts against a Brazilian forward on Real Betis. "During the latter stages of the game," wrote referee Carlos Velasco Carballo in his match report, "monkey chants were directed at Betis player Robert whenever he touched the ball."
This latest news comes courtesy of the invaluable "Kick It Out" project, a London-based anti-racism movement. Founded in 1993, it seeks to promote tolerance in British and European soccer. "We are one of the leading members of the 'Football Against Racism in Europe' network," says Leon Mann, the group's spokesman. "Our objective is to challenge racism at all levels of the game." Mann stresses that "football bigotry" isn't unique to Spain. Sadly, it is endemic throughout southern, central, and eastern Europe.
Just last week, Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader felt the need to publicly condemn "racist acts" at his nation's soccer matches. According to the BBC, "Cameroonian Mathias Chago and Brazilians Eduardo da Silva and Oeliton Araujo dos Santos Etto, who play for Dinamo Zagreb, were taunted with monkey chants" during a February 12 match against Hajduk Split, Dinamo's bitter rival. Croatia's leading sports daily, Sportske Novosti, called it a "shameful eruption of racism." Hajduk Split is by now somewhat notorious for its bigoted fans. As the BBC pointed out, the team "had already been fined $3,600 this season, after its supporters waved racists banners during its previous encounter with Dinamo." In September 2002, the English club Fulham also complained of racial abuse after a match with Hajduk Split.
IN MANY EUROPEAN STADIUMS, racist chants are led by neo-Nazi and neo-fascist gangs, who often control wide sections of the stands. The problem is especially visible in Italy. Take the SS Lazio club--one of Italy's storied franchises, but also the favorite of former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini--whose most ardent supporters include a group known as the "Indomitables." These fans, as the New York Times notes, "adopt the trappings of fascism, including a disturbing amount of racist chanting." Even Lazio's captain, a self-proclaimed fascist named Paolo Di Canio, has been fined for giving the straight-arm fascist salute on the field.
Kick It Out's Leon Mann attended a Lazio home game in early 2005. At first, "it was a quite normal experience," he told me from London. But "as soon as a black player came on, the atmosphere completely changed," and the monkey chanting started. Mann worries that such bigotry is "almost ingrained into some Italian football clubs' cultures." Last November, FC Messina's Ivorian defender Marc Andre Zoro was brought to tears by supporters of the visiting Inter Milan, who bombarded him with anti-black slurs and monkey noises. Midway through the second half, Zoro picked up the ball near the Inter Milan fans' section and once again heard the monkey grunts. He walked over to a nearby official and asked him to please stop the game. Zoro's teammates begged him not to leave the pitch, and eventually he returned--to loud applause from the Messina crowd.
Though some Italian soccer officials, like their counterparts in Spain, have denied the extent of the problem, other Italians have been mugged by reality. For example, Rome mayor Walter Veltroni. "After learning that a swastika and two similar symbols had been hung from the terraces of Rome's Olympic stadium during Roma's game against Livorno on January 29," reports the British Guardian, Veltroni summoned Roma players to city hall to meet with Holocaust survivors. "For almost two hours," says the Guardian, "former concentration-camp inmates appealed to them to stop playing as soon as they saw Nazi symbols in the crowd." Veltroni then invited Paolo Di Canio and the Lazio squad to a similar meeting.
In eastern Europe, says Mann, the lack of immigration and paucity of non-white minorities foster conditions ripe for soccer racism. Many eastern Europeans simply aren't used to watching black and Latin American players. Combine this with historic anti-Semitism, and you have a combustible racial climate in the stadiums. According to Mann, fans at a recent lower-league match in Poland choreographed a human swastika in the stands. (This has also happened in Germany, he says.) Elsewhere, Hungary's Ujpest FC was recently fined after its supporters roared anti-Semitic chants at an opposing team, MTK Budapest, that was established by Hungarian Jews. "The campaigners out there are working with very limited resources," says Mann. "If the national associations don't want to see change, there won't be change."
To be sure, there are scattered signs that the tide in Europe may be shifting. Thierry Henry has spearheaded the "Stand Up, Speak Up" campaign, sponsored by Nike, to combat soccer bigotry, and won the backing of many high-profile players. (His efforts were spotlighted on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel last year.) Other anti-racism movements have sprouted up. The Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network is growing. FARE affiliates are cobbling together support for an anti-racism declaration proposed in the European Parliament. And Spain recently hosted the second Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) "United Against Racism" conference.
But as Mann tells it, the UEFA summit ended on a note of ambiguity, when the head of the Spanish Football Federation urged conferees not to "make a mountain out of a molehill." Mann believes the first step toward curing soccer racism must be for national administrators--in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere--to honestly diagnose the problem. He says the racist nonsense currently plaguing southern, central, and eastern Europe--such as the monkey chants and fans' pelting black players with bananas--"was commonplace here in the U.K. in the '70s and '80s." Indeed, British soccer still has scads of its own racial and ethnic troubles. "The situation here isn't perfect," Mann admits. "But there has been an understanding of the problem."
As a result, England's Premier League can now draw black stars more easily than, say, Spain's La Liga or Italy's Serie A. Just listen to what U.S. national team player DaMarcus Beasley told USA Today last April. Beasley, an African-American midfielder from Indiana, was hit by a strong gust of bigotry during his very first game with the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, an August 2004 Champions League match at Red Star Belgrade. "Whenever I got the ball they would whistle, boo, and make monkey noises," he said. "A lot of good black players don't want to play in some countries because racism is so bad. Spain is bad, Italy is bad. Holland isn't so bad. Fans should judge [a player] on how he does on the field and not the color of his skin."
MOST AMERICANS, I'm sure, pay very little (if any) attention to U.S. professional soccer, let alone the European game. But the one time, every four years, that Americans do show an ephemeral interest is during the World Cup, which Germany will host this summer. Given the recent spate of headline-grabbing incidents, FIFA must--or should--be worried about racist outbursts spoiling the party. German police have already vowed to crack down on Nazi taunts--even those delivered in jest--and other active displays of racism. It would be a pity if the biggest story from the tournament involved not a smashing bit of footwork on the pitch but an ugly scene of hooligan-led bigotry in the stands.
A pity--but not necessarily a surprise.
Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.